Put Me In, Coach!
Throughout his baseball career, [Brady Clark] has always been the underdog, the guy who needed to prove something to everyone. except himself.
by Michael R. Haskins
photo by Fred Greaves

Here is a short but important list of the things Brady Clark ’95 was told he couldn’t do: play Division I college baseball. Play professional baseball. Make it to the major leagues. Be a starter.Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

For as long as he wanted to be a professional athlete, Clark’s been dismissed by everyone — scouts, sportswriters, analysts, and the all-around know-it-alls who seem to pop up whenever sports are being discussed — as a guy without the tools, or the size, or the speed, or the talent, to be a starter on a major league baseball team.

They all underestimated him.

But proving the critics wrong hasn’t been easy. At every step, Clark has had to prove himself. The breaks have been few, and the setbacks so numerous that at many junctures it would have been easier to give up. But for a guy who’s always been told he can’t, Clark has always been pretty sure — strike that, he’s been absolutely sure — that he can.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon at San Diego’s Petco Park, and the Milwaukee Brewers have the field for practice before the night’s game against the Padres. The sun shines on the fresh grass, the wind breezes through the stadium. The park is quiet, save for some random chatter from the outfield, the occasional crack of the bat and the slap of a ball landing in a glove.

When Brady Clark appears in the visitors dugout, bat in hand, it’s entirely possible to see why, for so many years, he was overlooked by the baseball establishment. A lanky 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, he’s not an imposing figure. At 32, he’s middle-aged for a baseball player, but his youthful face makes it easy to picture him getting carded at a bar. The bat in his hands somehow seems oversized. It doesn’t look like he could use this bat to become one of the top hitters in the National League, which is exactly what he’s done.

In a world full of swagger, Clark is calm and quiet. He doesn’t make much eye contact, preferring to gaze out at center field, as if taking stock of the territory he’ll patrol this evening. In the midst of a breakthrough season as the leadoff hitter for the Brewers, he looks about as far from self-important as the outfield wall looks from home plate.

Clark wears his cap pulled low as he watches his teammates take batting practice. If you described him to a friend, you’d probably start with something like “low-key.” He turns that bat over and over in his hands, as if itching to get out there and take a few cuts.

When Clark does talk, it’s clear why he’s finally has taken his rightful place among the ranks of the top major leaguers. He believes. And his faith in himself is unwavering.

“I never doubted myself, so I was persistent,” says Clark. “My belief in knowing what I was capable of doing kept me going — that and my love of the game.”

Many times, Clark was the only one who believed. He was always athletic, but he never looked much like a stereotypical jock. As a kid, he was into gymnastics, skiing, basketball, football and, of course, baseball. But he always had something to prove.

Case in point: As a sophomore at Sunset High School in Beaverton, Ore., Clark weighed in at an unimpressive 145 and stood 5-foot-7. But he was convinced he had the tools to be the football team’s starting quarterback. Who did this short, skinny kid think he was? But Clark believed. He weeded basketball out of his activities, focused on football and baseball only. And when senior year rolled around, he took the field as the team’s starting quarterback.

The lesson Clark learned from football was fortuitous when it came to baseball. Although he turned in a solid high school performance on the diamond, Clark was overlooked by the major colleges. That might have been it, had he not been so confident.

“I had the desire to play the game, so I knew I had to find a way,” he says. “At the time, it was something I had to explore, to see how far I could go.”

So in the fall of 1990, Brady and his father, Steve Clark, put together a homemade press kit and sent it to 40 or 50 colleges. A couple of smaller schools in the Northwest offered scholarships, but Clark wanted to be where the climate would allow him to play year-round. Father and son hit the road, and in the midst of their travels, stopped by USD and talked to then-coach John Cunningham.

“All we were asking for was the opportunity for Brady to perform, to show what he could do,” says Steve Clark. “In Brady’s mind, that one chance was all he needed.”

One chance was all Cunningham was willing to offer.

“Brady and his dad said that he’d come to USD as long as he got an opportunity to play,” says Cunningham. “I couldn’t promise him playing time or even a roster spot, but I did promise that he’d get the same opportunity as anyone else to make the team.”

So Clark came to USD as a non-scholarship, walk-on player. He played well enough in the fall of 1991 to make the team, and started the season as a backup. To make money, he did the team’s laundry.

But Cunningham had an unofficial rule about bench players. If they came in and got a game-winning hit, they’d start the next game. After spending the first 10 games on the bench, Clark got his chance. He came in as a pinch hitter and nailed down a Torero victory. True to his word, Cunningham penciled Clark into the starting lineup for the next game.

He should have used pen, because Clark started every game for the rest of the season.

The walk-on hopeful went on to start almost every game for the rest of his time as a Torero. After earning a scholarship spot as a sophomore, Clark posted an impressive .307 batting average over his four years at USD and was selected First Team All-West Coast Conference as a senior, when he lead the team in home runs and RBIs.

All in all, Clark turned in an outstanding college career. When he didn’t get drafted by a major league team after his junior year, he shrugged it off.

“Coach Cunningham really stressed the importance of finishing school,” says Clark, who majored in business. “I liked the idea of that, because it allowed me to go after my dreams with something to fall back on.”

But those dreams were about to be shattered.

The rules of the Major League Baseball draft have changed over the years, but the basic concept remains the same. Each June, baseball teams get together on a conference call and, by rounds, select nearly 1,500 amateur players they may want to sign to professional contracts. Even among players selected in the very first round, slightly less than two-thirds ever make it to the majors.

So it was with deep anticipation and expectation that Clark and his family awaited the June 1995 amateur draft. On draft day, they gathered to await the phone call letting Brady know which team had picked him.

And then, nothing. The shock, to this day, remains palpable.

“Brady couldn’t believe it when he didn’t get drafted,” says Steve Clark. “‘Very disappointed’ hardly begins to describe it. But the confidence he had in himself was still there.”

Clark was devastated, but unwilling to give up. His choices were to try signing with a major league team as a free agent — an unlikely scenario — to play in an independent league, or to give up and go home.

Going home was never an option. Clark joined a semiprofessional team in the Bay area for a year after graduation, then returned to USD to finish up a couple of academic requirements. One day, as he helped Cunningham prep the field, Clark met a scout for the Cincinnati Reds. Impressed with the young man’s dedication, the scout invited Clark to a workout in Los Angeles, liked what he saw and signed him to a contract.

It would be nice to say that good things continued to happen. But Clark went to spring training and almost immediately broke his hand. The team released him and sent him home to Oregon. At the memory, Clark flexes his hands and winces. Had he not been a free agent, it might have been different.

“The opportunities you’re given as a free agent are not as plentiful as those given to a high-round draft pick,” says Clark. “You need to do everything perfectly to move up.”

So Clark went home, where his dad was lucky enough to know an orthopedic surgeon. After an operation and a summer’s worth of rehabilitation, the same scout convinced the Reds to give Clark one more chance.

That was all he needed. Clark quickly made a name for himself in the minor leagues. He was an all-star in the Class A Midwest League in 1997 and was most valuable player and batting champion in the Class AA Southern League in 1999. Having shown his capabilities, Clark moved up to AAA in 2000 and, on Sept. 3 of that year, after seven years in the minor leagues, stepped onto the field for the first time as a major league player.

Just six Toreros have ever made it to the majors, and among them only Clark and John Wathan, who played 10 seasons for the Kansas City Royals, have had careers of any length. In his first season, Clark played in a handful of games to finish out the season, and the following year he split time between the Reds and the minor league club.

But he still had to prove himself. After so many years in the minors, Clark was pegged strictly as a utility guy, someone reliable to have on the bench. He bounced between the majors and the minors, and eventually was traded to the Mets, who cut him after 2003 spring training. He was picked up by the Brewers, who also had him in mind for a backup role. Through it all, Clark envisioned himself as a starter, and he knew what it would take to get there.

“There are guys at this level who don’t have to work as hard, because they’ve got such incredible natural ability,” says Clark, “but guys like me have to work every day to maximize their abilities.”

When he got to the Brewers, Clark knew he’d found a team that would appreciate his work ethic. He describes Milwaukee as a blue-collar environment, where people come in every day, work hard and do the right things. As a backup at all outfield positions and a pinch hitter, he appeared in more than 100 games in 2003 and 133 games last year. When the Brewers traded their regular center fielder, Scott Podsednik, to the White Sox before this season, it was time for Clark to prove himself once and for all.

Clark has many fond memories of his Toreros baseball career, but there is one thing he remembers in particular. It’s something that Coach John Cunningham said to the team almost every day.“He always told us that we are responsible for ourselves, that we control what we do, and that we should never look to use someone else to blame for what happens to us,” says Clark.

This year, those words resonate more than ever. Clark earned the chance to be the starting center fielder, and leadoff hitter, for the Brewers. At the beginning of the season, the naysayers were out in full force. They said Clark was too old to be a starter. They said he wasn’t fast enough to play center field. They said he’d never cut it as a leadoff hitter. Brady Clark just smiled — or maybe he was gritting his teeth.

So far, “they” have been dead wrong. In the first half of the season, Clark posted a .322 batting average and a .994 fielding percentage. So has he proved himself yet?

Clark smiles, twists the bat in his hand, and stares out at the field.

“I’ve always had to prove I could play at the next level,” he says. “Now I have to prove that I belong here as an everyday player. At this level, you have to prove yourself every day.” He gives a little shake of his head.

“But I don’t have a problem with that.”